President Obama's honesty may have just proven politically damaging for his party.
Asked about the race to replace him in 2016, the president said Sunday that he’ll probably stay on the sidelines and not campaign much for whomever is the Democratic nominee, because the American people want, “you know, that new car smell.”
“They want to drive something off the lot that doesn't have as much mileage as me," Obama told ABC’s George Stephanopoulos.
Analytically speaking, Obama was almost certainly right. Voters hardly ever elect a president of the same party of a president who just served two terms. And the last time that happened, in 1988, voters threw out President George H.W. Bush after only one term.
But while accurate, Obama’s self-deprecating (if even passive-aggressive) joke about how Democrats are running away from him has the unfortunate consequence of highlighting perhaps the biggest weakness of his most likely Democratic successor, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
Clinton has one of the longest resumes of any presidential contender in memory, which is both a strength, and a liability. As Obama himself knows from using this playbook to beat Clinton in the 2008 Democratic primary, she’s vulnerable to charges that she’s been around Washington too long and should be sidelined by a fresher face. In other words, that she doesn’t have “the new car smell” that, say, a young upstart Illinois senator had.
Obama’s comments were almost certainly not intended as a swipe at Clinton, but Republicans pounced on them nonetheless, hoping to solidify the interpretation that the president was criticizing Clinton.
The Republican National Committee sent out not one but two emails to reporters highlighting the clip. If voters want a fresh candidate, RNC Raffi WIlliams spokesperson said, “I guess that disqualifies all the leading Democratic contenders.”
Party Chairman Reince Priebus tweeted, “Obama admits that Hillary's bid to be his third term isn't the freshest concept.”
America Rising, the opposition research super PAC that has been slinging dirt at Clinton for months, noted that Clinton was “criticized by Obama in 2008 as being part of the politics of the past,” the group wrote.
“It's not just a matter of age,” Washington Examiner columnist Byron York wrote of Clinton and Vice President Joe Biden. “The two will also have been on the national political stage for an enormous length of time... New, they're not.”
In context, it seems Obama meant no harm to Clinton -- whom he called a friend and a potential “great president” -- but was rather making a joke at his own expense. "I am very interested in making sure that I've got a Democratic successor," he said.
But of all people, Obama should know by that now that his opponents will find the least charitable meaning of his words if he’s not absolutely clear about his intentions.
Ahead of the 2014 midterm elections, when every Democrat was running from the president, it seemed he couldn’t help but insert himself in an election that everyone in his party wanted to stay away from. “[My] policies are on the ballot,” Obama said in a speech in early October, when ended up in GOP campaign ads and earned a wince from a longtime adviser, David Axelrod.
Related: Hillary Clinton supporters gather to talk 2016 strategy
2016 will be likely be very similar. As Obama himself acknowledged in the interview, the Democratic nominee will have to distance themselves from the unpopular president both for political reasons and because they'll have genuine policy disagreements. But his comments Sunday "didn’t do Hillary Clinton any favors," as NBC's Mark Murray writes.
In both the 2014 and 2016 comments, Obama seemed to be expressing displeasure about being sidelined by his own party. But both times hw ended up causing only more headaches for Democrats, thus perhaps making them to want to sideline him even more. This could be a problematic virtuous cycle in next presidential election, where Obama will be sensitive about preserving his legacy.
The question is whether the president and his protective team will allow Clinton or whoever wins the nomination to do what they need to do to win, or if they'll undermine the nominee by reminding voters of their connection to Obama. After Clinton criticized the president in an interview this summer, there was a brief spat between the two camps.
It’s another example of the complicated dance Clinton and Obama will have to do heading into 2016. At a gathering of Clinton allies in New York Friday, they acknowledged the delicacy of being pegged as Obama's third term. "If she decides to run, she should not run as a third Bill Clinton term, nor a third Barack Obama term. She should run as Hillary Clinton," said former Clinton political director Craig Smith, a senior advisor to pro-Clinton super PAC Ready for Hillary.
"I'm going do everything I can, obviously, to make sure that whoever the nominee is is successful,” Obama told Stephanopoulos. The problem is that might mean not doing much.